The Liberals also won the advertising campaign

—It’s hard to identify cause and effect in political advertising, but Eric Blais thinks these two ads could have had a big impact on the recent election.—

Advertising is rarely part of the national conversation unless it’s political. Like a sneaker ad about kneeling. A beer ad about being Canadian. Or a sponsorship advertising scandal. And so it becomes a hot topic during elections. Particularly when the fight for votes in a tight race requires nasty negative ads.

During every election, pundits become advertising experts, boldly declaring that negative ads work. They argue that if attack ads didn’t work, parties wouldn’t use them, and the reason they work is that they have an unconscious impact on voters’ perceptions of candidates. I’m both glad to see our craft being given such magical powers, and concerned that it’s misleading.

An election that few wanted turned into a dog fight at a time when many people were tired of the pandemic and still worried about their health. Some were obviously angry. That’s fertile ground for negative advertising that plays on people’s fears.

While some of the attack ads were no doubt effective, not all of them were—just as not all ads for goods and services hit the mark. It’s also very difficult to accurately assess advertising effectiveness, prove cause and effect, and measure its return on investment. There are so many influences on a decision to buy or vote that it’s virtually impossible to isolate the role the advertising played.

Yet two ads, both from the Liberals, stick out for me, and I believe likely had a real impact on the election’s outcome.

One was the ad called “Stronger Gun Control,” in which former Toronto police chief and Liberal MP Bill Blair accused Erin O’Toole of promising the gun lobby he would legalize assault weapons like AR-15 rifles.

It delivered a powerful message by a credible authority that hurt the Conservatives in two ways: It no doubt scared many anti-gun voters in the GTA when it started airing on Sept. 13. And it definitely reminded everyone—including some of his supporters who were watching the PPC—that O’Toole had backtracked on his party’s election platform to end the ban on assault weapons already in place.

However, the Conservatives’ slide in the polls in Ontario had already begun a week earlier—dropping from 34.4% on Labour Day to 33% the day the ad was released according to the CBC’s Poll Tracker, making it difficult to prove cause and effect. If nothing else, it confirmed what many voters already feared.

The other ad that I thought was powerful and likely had an effect, yet received little attention nationally, was a spot connecting O’Toole to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. It almost certainly helped elect Liberal George Chahal in Calgary Skyview and oust Conservative incumbent Jag Sahota.

It did what great attack ads do: Use an opponent’s own words against them. In this case, it was O’Toole’s praise for Kenney’s handling of the pandemic. It showed O’Toole speaking to camera: “Premier Kenney has navigated this Covid-19 pandemic far better than the federal government has. And when it comes to getting our country back on track, the federal Conservatives can learn a lot from our UCP cousins.”

It contrasted O’Toole’s works with clippings critical of Kenney’s handling of the pandemic. And it closed with the simple question: “Is Erin O’Toole who you want in charge right now?” The ad was posted on Chahal’s Facebook page on Sept. 2, two weeks before the Premier apologized for his government’s COVID-19 response.

As strong as the ad was, it’s again difficult to determine cause and effect. After all, it’s the third time the riding of Calgary Skyview has changed its party allegiance over the past six years.

Voters were perhaps already in the mood for change. Chahal certainly benefited from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s endorsement just before voting day. And we learned soon after that Chahal removed a Conservative flyer from a resident’s mailbox when dropping off his own flyer. The moment was captured on video, and is being investigated by Calgary Police.

Chahal’s very “hands on” approach to cutting through the competitive clutter may have also played a role in his election, making it difficult to prove cause and effect for his strong and well-crafted attack ad.

After millions spent on advertising over 36 days, we likely won’t know which ads really worked. But we have certainly learned that the Liberals—who have always claimed to avoid divisive American-style attack ads—can also dish it out when the going gets tough.

2021 Federal Elections Ads provided by Headspace Marketing Inc. on Vimeo.

Éric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing in Toronto. He has helped build brands for over 35 years and is a frequent commentator on political marketing, most recently on CBC’s Power & Politics.